Part Four

In Defence of Trotskyism - Our Struggle with the International

[Section 4]

Marxism and the unions

Despite all the problems, we intervened in the class struggle wherever we could - for example, in the strike in the London docks in June 1948. The union (Transport and General Workers) was under the control of the right wing. Therefore, this was a spontaneous rank and file unofficial strike. Contrary to the ultra-left attitude of the sects in strikes, we went to the dockers offering some basic class assistance and advice. We got a friendly response from the workers, who appreciated our help. Disgusted at the role of the right wing leadership of the union, thousands of dockers in all the ports were prepared to tear up their union cards. Some raised the idea of a new breakaway dockers' union, as some kind of panacea to the problems that they faced.

We explained to any militants who would listen to us that such a road would be disastrous for the union and the workers. They should remain and fight within the ranks of the union and try to change it. They had to attend their official union meetings and their branches and start to organise an opposition that could challenge the rule of the right wing. Difficult as that might be, we told them, it was the only real way forward. If they split away from the union, they would separate the more advanced militant layers of the union from the more backward layers. This would then leave the union in the grip of the right wing. In fact it would consolidate their hold on the union. This had always been the classic position of Marxism on this question. Lenin explained this in his book Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. After a period of discussions with the workers and shop stewards, we managed to convince these activists of the correctness of our position.

Incidentally, a few years later, in 1954, the Healyites took the completely opposite stance. Unbelievably, they urged the dockers to leave the Transport and General Workers Union and join the so-called "Blue" Union, the NASDU. This proved disastrous, as we warned at the time. It resulted in the spread of non-unionism on the docks. The NASDU ended up on the right and was eventually absorbed into the TGWU in 1973. The same insane tactics seem to be a constant feature in the conduct of ultra left elements in the unions. Thus, in 1970 the Cliff group urged workers in the Pilkingtons Glass factory to leave the General and Municipal Workers Union, which was under the control of the rightwing, and create their own Glass Workers Union. This also ended in disaster and many workers were victimised as a result of this debacle. These sectarians never learn, and they do a great deal of damage wherever they are able to get a toe-hold in the workers' movement.

The dock strike revealed the mood in the trade union movement towards the Labour Government at that time. The strike had the sympathy of the majority of the working class. Despite the fact that the dockers - thanks to their organisation and militancy - were among the highest paid workers, there was complete solidarity from other workers. Yet when the Labour Government sent troops into the docks to break the strike and introduced a state of emergency, there were no protests within the Labour movement - except the ones that we tried to organise. This was something that would have been unthinkable under the 1924 or 1929-31 Labour Governments. It showed the different atmosphere that now prevailed. The workers had great illusions in the Labour Government. They could be critical of the government, but the overwhelming majority still believed in it. They regarded it as their Labour Government. So the workers were not prepared to oppose the actions of the government. Even when the government sent the troops into the docks as strike-breakers, there was no question of sympathetic strike action from other sections of the working class.

Stalinism strengthened

The situation had changed, and we had a hard period in front of us. How long this would last was impossible to say, maybe a year or two, maybe longer. We certainly never expected it to last 25 years! In any case, we were caught between hammer and anvil - squeezed by the reformists on the one hand, and the Stalinists on the other. The period 1947-49 was also one of the Chinese Revolution. Although it was carried through in a distorted and deformed manner, the revolution in China nevertheless further increased the prestige of the Stalinists. True, the CP also faced difficulties arising from the successes of the Labour Government, but they could bask under the glow of the victories of the Red Army and the achievements of the Stalinists internationally. They regarded themselves as part of an international movement that was registering huge successes in China, Eastern Europe and so on.

At that time, the prestige of the Soviet Union was colossal. So they latched even more slavishly onto the strength of the USSR, which served to sustain them. They had also managed to gain two MPs in the 1945 General Election, Gallacher and Piratin, which was a high point for the Communist Party on the parliamentary plane. At this time, as the Cold War was developing apace, the support they had built up in the Labour Party was largely undermined. The CP had a number of fellow-travellers in the Parliamentary Labour Party - about 18 MPs who were either secret members of the CP or very close to the Party. But they were drastically weakened by their attempt to defend Russian foreign policy. A witch-hunt was launched against the CP within the Labour Party and the trade unions, and a number were expelled for various reasons. This included MPs such as John Platts Mills, Zilliacus, Solley, Lester Hutchinson and DN Pritt. Not only these, but a whole series of other leading people and activists in the Labour Party up and down the country were expelled. This again showed the strong position that the bureaucracy had in the Labour Party.

It is true that after 1947, the first cracks began to appear in the edifice of the Attlee government, coinciding with the beginning of counter-reforms. There was talk of 'austerity' and the first cautious attacks on the working class. At first, these attacks were not considered serious by the labour movement, which saw them as temporary setbacks in the forward march of the Labour Government. Later, the Attlee Government introduced certain charges in the National Health Service, which provoked the resignation of Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson from the government. This served to strengthen the support for Bevan and the other Lefts, and they succeeded in getting themselves elected to Labour's National Executive Committee. Bevan was regarded increasingly as the leader of the Left at this time. Nevertheless, the Left was still very weak. It represented the first rumblings of discontent within the Party. But it certainly did not represent the development of a mass left wing inside the Labour Party, as the Healy group maintained.

The betrayal of the Stalinists and reformists had provided the political preconditions for the revival of capitalism. In Britain, the Labour Government saved capitalism. In Italy and France, the Stalinists played the same role by entering the coalition governments. This effectively eliminated the threat of socialist revolution, provided a valuable breathing space, and allowed, at least in the west, a certain period of social stability. The temporary rehabilitation of western capitalism by the United States was serving to stabilise the situation. Based on huge investments from the United States, there was an enormous development of productive forces taking place in America, Japan, and in Western Europe generally. Capitalism throughout Europe was experiencing a new lease of life.

In the colonial world it was a completely different picture. The Chinese Revolution was reverberating throughout the continent of Asia. The struggle of the colonial peoples unleashed the greatest movement of social and national liberation in history. The struggle against British imperialism in India reached such a peak, that the British were forced to beat a hasty retreat, but not before dividing the living body of India and killing over a million people in the process. In Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, Trotskyism built a mass following. In contrast to the rest of the Communist movement, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party expelled the Stalinists from its ranks at the beginning of the war.

After their heroic struggle against British imperialism, the LSSP became the dominant working class party. In 1939, they affiliated to the Fourth International, which provided the International with a mass party. The leadership of the LSSP looked to the International for support and guidance. However, over time they became increasingly disillusioned with the false policies and antics of the International leadership. The seeds of the reformist degeneration of the LSSP, present at this stage, were accentuated by the inability of the international leadership to intervene. This was to constitute a great tragedy for Trotskyism in the Indian Sub-continent. A great part of the responsibility for this development lay with the International leadership, which was not prepared to analyse the situation or its mistakes made in the period 1945-1949.

Trotskyism had also developed a mass following in Indo-China. However, there the movement faced a crushing defeat at the hands of the Stalinists. In late 1945, with the end of the War, the Stalinists seized power in the north under Ho Chi-Minh. The Vietnamese Trotskyists were labelled counterrevolutionaries and brutally massacred by the Stalinist regime. When British troops landed in Saigon, the Stalinist chief of police, Duong bach Mai, rounded up all the Trotskyists at gunpoint. "Having carried out this operation", says Lu sanh Hanh, leader of the LIC, "Tran van Giau, with the agreement of the government in the north, ordered the systematic killing of all Trotskyist elements in the country. Tran van Thach, Ta thu Thau, Phan van Hum and dozens of other revolutionary militants were murdered in circumstances that, to this day, have not been properly established."[10]

In the underdeveloped countries, as a result of the weakness of the revolutionary forces and because of the paralysis of Stalinism and reformism, the revolution did not take place in the classical fashion as in Russia in 1917. Even the mighty Chinese Revolution, the second greatest revolution in history, could not be a pole of attraction for workers in the West because of the deformed way in which it had taken place, and the totalitarian system that had been installed. It was predominantly a peasant movement, and the workers played no independent role in it. Without this there could be no workers' democracy and the movement towards socialism in China. Based on the image of Moscow, the revolution was deformed from the very beginning. As a consequence, it had no great rallying effect on the working class in the advanced industrial countries, particularly in Britain. Thus, on an international scale, the forces of Trotskyism were extremely isolated in this period where capitalism was able to consolidate itself and Stalinism also emerged enormously strengthened.

Weakness of the Left

This situation provided the bourgeoisie with a new lease of confidence. Despite the losses they sustained in Eastern Europe and South Asia, they had managed, with the help of the Stalinists and reformists, to stabilise the situation. The confidence of the bourgeois in their system was also reflected inside the British labour movement, with the strengthening of right wing of reformism. This was later shown by the crushing domination of the Gaitskellites - the Neanderthal right wing, as I baptised them - in the Labour and trade union movement. They contemptuously referred to Marxism as an old-fashioned doctrine left over from the Victorian era. In actual fact, it was the ideas of the reformists that were pre-Marxian. They had already been answered by Marx 120 years previously. But since these ignoramuses who criticised Marx had never read a single line of his, how could they be expected to know this?

The Neanderthal rightwing had big support within the Labour Party and the trade unions. We were entering the long period of domination of the British trade union movement by extreme right wingers like Deakin, Lawther and Carron. Even the Bevanite Left was pretty muted and weak. It had support in the local Labour Parties, but did not represent any tidal movement towards the left. It was a weak and very irresolute tendency. It stood on a far lower political level than the pre-war Lefts in the Labour Party. They could not be compared to leaders like Jimmy Maxton. Even if you compare the speeches of Stafford Cripps and the Socialist League before the war, you will see that they were on a much higher level than the Bevanite Left in the post-war period.

With no mass left wing in the Labour Party the Healyites, despite all their illusions, found a very cool atmosphere within the Party. John Lawrence, who had now returned to the Minority, had made a mess of the position in Wales. From the fifty-odd members that we had there at our height after the successes of the Neath by-election, the RCP had dwindled. This was partly the objective situation, and partly because of Lawrence's own incapacity to stand up against the pressures. He complained about the lack of possibilities, and had delusions about speaking to mass movements as in the good old days of the Neath election. But instead we were reduced to a tiny movement that held small meetings in Neath every Sunday. The crowds that originally wanted to hear what we had to say had melted away. Over a period, Lawrence reduced the organisation in Wales to a shambles.

We understood that times were difficult, and that losses were inevitable, but we could at least hold the majority of our forces together until things improved. We had succeeded in consolidating the tendency nationally on the basis of Marxist education and sober perspectives and a practical explanation of the situation. We inoculated the best of our worker comrades against the pressures, and so in most areas, we had kept our forces relatively intact in the period 1947-1949.

When the Minority entered the Labour Party, they adopted a completely opportunist position. "Healy was arguing in favour of comrades concealing their political views, and the main job of comrades was to get into positions in the Labour Party, trade unions, etc., and keep one's political position as dark as possible…" relates Ellis Hillman, a supporter of Healy at the time, who later broke with him and came over to us.[11] Instead of growing, as they had expected, the Healyite organisation was suffering from stagnation and going through a crisis. From the bits and pieces of information we got, the Healyites were in the doldrums. They had no publication of their own, and were floundering in their efforts to recruit to their tendency. Despite all their boasts about a mass left wing in the Labour Party, they hadn't got the results that they had expected.

Of course, Healy and Co. tried to put the responsibility for their failings onto the shoulders of the RCP. They accused us of obstructing their work, and so on. All of which was complete nonsense. They complained that our Labour Party comrades were deliberately blocking and undermining their work in the Party. So Healy complained bitterly to his supporters in the International leadership. He cynically manipulated and used the International for his own ends, whereas the International leadership, of course, imagined that they were manipulating Healy. As a result, we had a visit from one of Pablo's faithful henchmen, Jacques Privas. He was one of the leaders of the French Trotskyists and also a member of the IS. He came to see us at our headquarters at Harrow Road. He arrived on the scene inquiring about Healy's complaints against the RCP leadership and their allegations that we were destroying their work. We could see straight away that it was just a set-up. We told him we had no interest in the Healyites or their Labour Party work. We were certainly not interested in "fingering them" to the bureaucracy and the rest of it, as they had also claimed. We scrupulously avoided even mentioning the Healy group in our public material. We let them carry on with their own devices, and we carried on with ours. But as Healy was in difficulties, he tried to put the responsibility on our shoulders.

Privas, as we expected, believed Healy's story. Then he dropped his bombshell. He told us that he had an ultimatum from the IS. Unless we were prepared to withdraw our forces from the Labour Party, or place our forces in the Labour Party under Healy's control, the International would be forced to reconsider our whole position as an official section of the International. He was simply holding a gun to our head. This was a position that we could not accept. This whole business was having a demoralising effect, especially on Jock Haston, who became disorientated by the experience.

[To be continued]

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[10] Ngo Van, Revolutionaries They Could not Break, London 1995, p.162.

[11] Quoted in War and the International, p. 210.